According to the calendar, summer officially ends this week. But unofficially, it ended over the weekend: BP’s leaking oil well, which cast a gooey black malaise over the last five months, is finally dead.
Crews pumped in cement Friday to plug the well nearly 2.5 miles below the sea floor. The mixture had hardened by Saturday, and a pressure test completed early yesterday confirmed that the plug would hold. [Boston Globe]
Now it time for cleanup, lawsuits, and a whole lot of unanswered questions, including:
Will we drill again?
Offshore oil drilling will go on, eventually. But the ongoing fallout from the BP disaster means that when drilling resumes, oil companies will have to figure out not only how to do it more safely, but also how to convince the public they’re doing it more safely.
Those concerns, along with questions about safety, led to a U.S. moratorium on deep-water drilling and new regulations that have slowed the pace of work in waters less than 500 feet deep, where the industry has explored and produced for decades. “And the impact will not only be on offshore activity,” said Bill Arnold, professor of energy management at Rice University. “A whole new level of political risk has been identified that the industry will have to deal with.” [Houston Chronicle]
How much oil, exactly?
205.8 million gallons: That’s the official figure for how much oil leaked into the Gulf of Mexico from the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion on April 20 until the well was finally capped. 205.8 million gallons may go down in history books and Wikipedia articles as the total, but it’s just a guess (and perhaps a wild one). We saw plenty of times during the spill when official estimates were way off.
Are bacteria doing the job?
One bit of good news to come out of the Deepwater Horizon cleanup was that microbes in the ocean appeared to be helping out by consuming some of the oil without using up too much oxygen and creating more dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico. However, a study out last week in the journal Science contended that this, too, is more complicated than it first appears: The study argued that those bacteria mostly ate the gases coming from the leaking well, not the oil.
The paper doesn’t rule out the possibility that bacteria also are consuming oil from the spill, the authors said. Instead, it suggests that natural gas primed the growth of bacteria that may have gone on to digest “more complex hydrocarbons”—oil —as the spill aged and propane and ethane were depleted. Still, lead author David L. Valentine, a professor of microbial geochemistry at UC Santa Barbara, said the findings temper hopes that microorganisms detected by scientists in the gulf have eaten up most of the oil there, as other scientists had recently suggested. [Los Angeles Times]
What will become of BP?
The massive leak cost thousands of people their jobs, at least temporarily and perhaps permanently. But whether BP can recover depends on just how large its liability is. The Wall Street Journal says the company’s bill just for violating the Clean Water Act could jump from $4 billion to more than $17 billion if it is found to have been negligent. That doesn’t include any criminal liability.
It plans to sell $30 billion of assets to pay for the spill. Initially the company said this would be restricted to non-core operations, such as Vietnam or Colombia. However, reports persist that BP could also be preparing to exit heartlands such as Alaska, where the company has been a major operator since the 1960s. The Sunday Times also reported that BP now plans to sell $40 billion of assets, more than double the initial target given in June. [Wall Street Journal]
With figures like that, it’s no wonder BP is trying to shift as much blame as it can to its collaborators like Halliburton and Transocean.
Update, September 27: A new, independent, peer-reviewed study of the BP oil spill has confirmed that the spill is one of the worst in history, totaling 185 million gallons of oil, or 4.4 million barrels. The new estimate is fairly close to the latest federal estimate.
The federal government’s final estimate was about 172 million gallons, but because it’s difficult to get a precise figure, the researchers said the margin of error is large enough that the two estimates essentially overlap. [USA Today]
To get their estimate of the spill’s intensity, the team, led by Timothy Crone at Columbia University, analyzed high-resolution footage of the leak to measure the flow rate of oil. Because they only had access to two of these high-res clips, their estimate may still be off.
The true figures may be larger, Crone said. “We clearly acknowledge the limits of our technique,” he said adding. “We’re unlikely to ever know the exact figure.” His colleague, marine geophysicist Maya Tolstoy, said: “This is not the last word. It is the first peer-reviewed word. But we think it’s a really good ballpark.” [USA Today]
Recent posts on the BP oil spill:
80beats: BP Update: “Bottom Kill” Nearly Complete, But Oil Found on Seafloor
80beats: BP Report on Gulf Disaster Spreads the Blame Around
80beats: Scientists Find 22-Mile-Long Oily Plume Drifting in the Gulf of Mexico
80beats: Gulf Coast Turtle News: No More Fiery Death; Relocating 70,000 Eggs
Image: U.S. Coast Guard